This topic has been clouded by wishful thinking and pernicious misinformation for too long. Time to clean up!
1. Directors are hired on the strength of their reel
A director’s reel is simply a collection of the best work done in the past — the 6-9 best TV spots for a commercial director or a film director’s best features (not a montage of shots — see my remarks in the comments section). If you don’t have a reel, you are not a director and nobody is going to give you a chance.
2. There isn’t a film degree in the world that will allow you to walk into a cushy film directing job
In the film industry nobody is even remotely interested in your education – all that matters is the projects that you directed in the past, particularly the most recent ones. Film school is useless. The director’s reel is everything.
3. There are essentially two distinct paths to directing films — being hired by a producer and being completely independent:
a) The director-for-hire route
– In this route a producer wants to get a film made. He finds a script, and attaches the most marketable actors he can get hold of. He then needs a director – specifically, a director who can make the movie the biggest success possible. If, in the producer’s opinion, you are the best director for this film, you stand a reasonable chance of landing the gig, but even then there are always tangential complications and it is far from guaranteed. On the other hand, if the folks who are paying for the movie are convinced that you are the best director for the film, your chances are very good indeed. Again, this decision will be made almost exclusively on the basis of what you have directed in the past. Do not kid yourself that you are going to talk your way into being hired to direct when you don’t have a reel. That is not how it works.
– The only way to be in a position where producers and film investors actively pursue you to direct their film is to have made interesting and/or successful films in the past. The only way to do that is to start off as an independent filmmaker. There is no other way, and all the networking and film degrees in the world will not compensate for a poor reel.
– It really should not be necessary, but if you want some quick evidence of how this works, go to Los Angeles Craigslist and check out the posts looking for directors for independent features. The producers always ask prospective directors to send a link to their reel. They never ask whether you went to UCLA film school or whether you attended a film networking event once. As a director, your reel is (almost) everything. I added the “almost” because personal charisma and leadership qualities also matter, but people are willing to overlook a less than adorable personality if your reel is truly amazing and they think that you can make the film amazing. Conversely, a top-notch personality will not compensate for a weak reel.
– While it is true that the work on your reel determines the work you will get in future, there is some flexibility: if all you have on your reel is short films, you can still get hired to direct a feature, as long there is something in your shorts that convinces them that you will do a great job.
b) The independent filmmaker route
– This is where you will have to start, whether you like it or not. An independent filmmaker’s life is quite incredibly tough. As an independent film director, you are one of tens of thousands of folks who say they’re going to be a filmmaker. Nobody will finance your films and, when you do manage to complete a film, it doesn’t make any money and only a few hundred people ever see it. This is the brutal reality of being an independent film director. That said, once your reel starts to grow in both size and quality, serious producers will start to take an interest in you – if and only if at least one of your films has been either spectacularly good or financially successful.
– Film networking is one of the most annoying myths in filmmaking ever. There are thousands of greasy self-styled filmmakers who seriously think that they can bypass building a decent reel by networking and sucking up to the powers that be. This does not, has never and will never work. If you want to become a film director, you have to build a solid reel – there is no way around that, and furthermore I would suggest that anyone who hopes to bypass the reel-building stage is not truly in love with filmmaking and therefore has no business directing films. I have never seen a single one of these oily networkers make any headway in their film directing career. Meanwhile, filmmakers such as myself have been quietly slogging away for years, working on their craft and building a reel of steadily increasing quality. Even then, not everyone makes it, but at least we made films.
– The best advice on how to become a film director was given, unsurprisingly, by one of the best filmmakers in history: James Cameron. He said:
“Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee” (James Cameron)
It may sound deceptively simplistic, but I can assure you that there is so much truth in this simple quote it’s not even funny.
Steven Spielberg has repeatedly given similar advice to aspiring filmmakers. If you’re not going to listen to James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, whom are you going to listen to? Their credibility is unparalleled. Learn from the best!
James Cameron’s advice is bad news for those who were hoping to weasel their way into the business without a solid reel. For everyone else, it is inspiring encouragement from a filmmaker of undisputed ability.
Holding the script hostage
“Holding the script hostage” is a situation in which a director has written or otherwise controls a spec script that is highly desirable to production companies. Having secured blazing desire for the script from these production companies, the director then makes it clear that he will only release the script if he is allowed to direct the film.
Holding a desirable script hostage is undoubtedly a huge help in being hired to direct a feature film. It was used by James Cameron to secure the director’s chair for “The Terminator”, and even then most companies were reluctant to let him direct, even though they badly wanted the script. James Cameron was careful to turn down all offers until one little production company agreed to let him direct.
Another director who successfully held his script hostage is Len Wiseman, who was allowed to direct “Underworld” just so that they could get hold of the script.
It goes without saying that holding the script hostage only really works if you already have some sort of reel. Even if a production company falls madly in love with your script, when you tell them that you will only sell it to them if they let you direct it, they will ask you for a sample of something you have directed in the past. If you don’t have a reel, you are not a director and have no business holding the script hostage. You can try, but the odds are against you. In any case, holding the script hostage only works if the script has irresistible commercial appeal.
4. What it boils down to is that a film director is somebody who makes films
Not somebody who is studying to make films at some useless, overpriced film school; not someone who is trying to network his way into the business without having a solid reel; none of that. Ultimately, you are either someone who makes movies or you are not.
5. Dreamers without a reel
There is a lot more respect in the film business for somebody who consistently makes movies with a camcorder and zero money than for someone who spends years talking about it and trying to weasel his way into the business but never actually shoots anything
That is pathetic. Don’t be the pathetic wannabe film director who has never shot anything. Get a camera and start training yourself to be a film director, because no one else can do it for you.
6. People hire directors because they have a problem to solve, not because they are interested in your “career”
Specifically, the problem they have is that they want to get a movie made and need a director who is exactly right for that movie and will turn it into a spectacular success. Only if you can deliver the goods they are looking for will you be hired. Again, from their point of view, it has nothing to do about giving a job to a nice guy or developing your career. It’s all about their baby. If you learn to look at the film business from this perspective, your chances of getting somewhere will improve significantly.
7. Some atrocious myths that need to be debunked as a matter of urgency:
– “I will become a film director by going to a really good film school.” No, you will not.
– “I will become a film director by going to lots of film networking events and talking my ass off.” Not a chance, partner.
– “I will become a film director by starting as a runner on a film set and working my way up.” This is not how it works (it is a good way to become a 1st Assistant Director, but I don’t think that is why you are here.) See my notes above on how and why directors are hired.
While it is true that some directors started as runners and worked their way up, it is equally true that this career strategy is among those with the lowest probability of success. Forget the exceptions and look at the big picture and general principles.
Useful resources for independent film directors
Here are some useful resources for those who already have a reel and want to start applying for directing gigs:
– Los Angeles Craigslist and New York Craigslist: look in the crew gigs and creative gigs. The occasional posting appears looking for a director: sometimes it is for an independent feature, other times for a web series or a commercial. As always, you will be judged on what you have directed in the past, and it is always worth trying.
– Mandy: look in the directing jobs section.
– AICP: look in the “help wanted” section – they occasionally look for directors to add to their roster.
– Perform a Google search of “seeking director reels.”
Good luck, and keep working on that reel: it is the only way to “become” a film director.